Women across the world have constantly struggled to retain jobs while balancing personal commitments of being the main caregivers for their families and children at home. The onset of the pandemic in 2020 further exacerbated this issue, leading to millions of women leaving the workforce around the world. In the United States, the women’s labor force participation rate is at its lowest since 1988.
In India, which has one of the lowest female labor force participation rates (FLFPR) in the world, this participation rate has traditionally been two or three times lower compared to countries like China and the U.S. In recent years, the FLFPR in the country fell from 30.27% in 1990 to 20.8% in 2019, according to the World Bank. The pandemic has further negatively affected working women in India, who have had to sacrifice their careers to take on more housework and child care responsibilities during the lockdowns.
To bridge this gender gap in the workforce and promote greater inclusion and diversity, larger companies and several women-led initiatives in India have been trying to empower and help women rejoin the workforce and provide them with a second chance at a career break.
Agreeing that gender diversity remains a challenge in India, Mahindra Logistics Limited (MLL), an integrated third-party logistics service provider, started a special initiative called ‘Udaan’ to bridge the gap specifically in the logistics sector. This initiative is a second careers (comeback) program that also includes a second careers internship program for women at all levels, functions and divisions, according to Edwin Lobo, senior general manager, human resources.
“Some of the common reasons why we see Indian women dropping out of the workforce are marriage, maternity, or due to caregiving responsibilities toward children or the elderly in the family. This does impact women’s representation in leadership roles,” Lobo said. “Considering the focus and the concerted efforts that are being put in across the sector through initiatives like Udaan, we are now witnessing women taking up leadership roles at the senior and mid-management level — not to mention many women getting into operational and technical roles like material handling equipment operators, shift supervisors, truck drivers, warehouse managers, stores and linefeed supervisors — and a plethora of other opportunities that have emerged.”
Mobilization of this kind of participation has required “a change in mindset toward how we include and leverage women in the logistics sector,” added Lobo. According to him, the company plans to hire 50 women under their initiative by end of 2021.
Lobo noted that the pandemic has made the employment situation worse for women.
“According to industry experts and economists, the reasons behind this drop are the discrimination against women in a patriarchal society, the lack of a family support system in quarantined living conditions and blurring boundaries between work and personal lives. Most of the companies have been putting efforts to support employees during the crisis,” he said. “The ‘Women in the Workplace 2020’ study reveals that women are feeling more exhausted, burnt out, and under pressure than men are. Therefore, organizations need to do more to align the norms and expectations that lead to these feelings.”
Second Chances with Avtar
Meanwhile, for women entrepreneurs like Dr. Saundarya Rajesh, her personal experience of trying to return to the workforce after a break inspired her to start Avtar, which helps provide second-career opportunities for women in corporate India. Rajesh said when she wanted to re-enter the career space a few years ago, she “discovered that the workplace, which existed then in India, was not very kind to women who did not fit the stereotype of the career-primary, all-or-nothing individual.”
Rajesh believes that while COVID-19 has resulted in disruption in women’s participation in the workforce, the emphasis on remote work will actually prove to be a boon for women in the long run.
“While COVID-19 did wipe out several thousands of careers of Indian women, it also gave a boon in the form of a disruptive acceptance of remote working. Flexibility is the oxygen of women’s careers. With more organizations readily looking at jobs being performed from home, it is likely that women’s employment will get a boost. This, in my opinion, will lead to more women obtaining jobs and becoming economically self-sufficient,” she said.
According to WorldatWork’s “COVID-19 Employer Response: India,” more than 39% percent of the employee population is anticipated to continue to work remotely after the pandemic.
In reflecting on how she introduced the career re-entry model to India Inc — the government and corporate sector of India — in 2006, Rajesh noted the progress that has occurred.
“Since then, more than 50,000 women have re-entered the workplace due to our work and influence. Several hundred thousand more have obtained second-career options in organizations inspired by our work,” Rajesh said. “We see women gaining confidence, reemerging as equal partners in the home front, taking financial decisions for their families — after becoming wage earners again.
“On the corporate front, we have worked with a couple of hundred organizations and helped them notice that gender inclusion — especially relating to women who come back after a break, in effect, after garnering life experiences that bring genuine cognitive diversity to their jobs — is a powerful competitive edge. Specific second-career tracks have been created in companies that see this (women taking a break) as a demographic trend that will always be at play.”
Explaining what such comebacks and initiatives like this require, Rajesh said there is a need for consistent inputs, sensitizing managers on what it’s like being a woman re-entering the workplace after a break, designing jobs that set them up to succeed, creating spaces for them to share and belong. “There is an uptick each year on second career women being employed,” she added.
The banking sector was the first to offer return-to-work programs in India. Subsequently, this was followed by the BPO industry and the IT industry, Rajesh said.
“Today, the IT industry leads with maximum companies pulling out all stops to attract this talent pool,” she said. “Industries such as FMCG, pharma, semiconductors, financial services, insurance, retail, e-commerce and manufacturing also offer second career tracks, albeit in lesser numbers.”
SHEROES Among Us
Other companies, such as SHEROES — another initiative by a woman entrepreneur — have taken this endeavor to help women grow at work and social spaces a step further by creating a platform where women are leading the conversation about their dreams and aspirations and helping each other to achieve them.
SHEROES, which is a women-only social platform, has built the world’s largest digital ecosystem to empower women and help them build a financial and social identity for themselves.
“Through SHEROES, women can access different opportunities. The platform helps women develop sound financial practices and makes them realize the importance of having a community that they can turn to for anything. Through SHEROES, women have access to mentorship, expert advice and curated job roles like options to work from home or the guidance to start their own business with the help from the community,” said Sairee Chahal, founder and CEO of SHEROES.
To aid women to get access to financial capital, SHEROES and its sister company Mahila Money, which is a digital bank “for entrepreneurial women,” have provided access to microloans for women entrepreneurs through this initiative, according to the community platform.
With remote work becoming the new normal during the pandemic, SHEROES is empowering women to adapt to and embrace technology to be able to work remotely.
“With COVID-19 leading to more importance being given to remote work, we are seeing more women upskilling and acquiring more digital skills on how to use social media platforms to expand their business and using digital payment options,” Chahal said. “The aim of SHEROES is to emphasize that with access to smartphones, or any smart device, women have access to unlimited opportunities and can build an income and identity for themselves.”
About the Author
Ruhi Bhasin is a freelance writer for WorldatWork.